One Hundred Years Of Huck Finn

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“BY AND BY,” Mark Twain wrote to William Dean Howells in 1875, “I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life (in the first person) but not Tom Sawyer —he would not be a good character for it.” A month later he knew that the boy would be Huck, and he began work; by midsummer of 1876 Twain was well under way. But something went wrong. He gave up the notion of carrying Huck on into adulthood and told Howells of what he had written thus far: “I like it only tolerably well, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn the ms. when it is done.”

Twain did put the book aside for seven years, during which time he produced A Tramp Abroad, The Prince and the Pauper , and Life on the Mississippi . It was his return to the great river that enabled Twain to return to Huck: he knew that the river was the structural center of the book and its life’s blood; now all went well. He reported to his family: “I am piling up manuscript in a really astonishing way. I believe I shall complete, in two months, a book which I have been going over for 7 years. This summer it is no more trouble to me to write than it is to lie. ” And to Howells, in August of 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to. I used to restrict myself to four and five hours a day and five days in the week, but this time I have wrought from breakfast till 5.15 P.M. six days in the week, and once or twice I smouched a Sunday when the boss wasn’t looking. Nothing is half so good as literature hooked on Sunday, on the sly.”

A few months later he gave the manuscript to Charles L. Webster (his nephew by marriage), whom Twain had set up as head of his own publishing company. When Twain saw the illustrations he had commissioned by E. W. Kemble, an artist whose work he had admired in Life , he urged him to make Huck look less “ugly” and less “Irishy.” Kemble obeyed.

The book was to be sold by subscription. “Keep it diligently in mind,” Twain wrote to Webster, “that we don’t issue until we have made a big sale . Get at your canvassing early and drive it with all your might, with an intent and purpose of issuing on the 10th or 15th of next December (the best time in the year to tumble a big pile into the trade); but if we haven’t 40,000 subscriptions we simply postpone publication till we’ve got them.”

Publication was postponed, but not for lack of subscriptions. While the book was being printed, someone added a few lines to Kemble’s drawing of Uncle Silas on page 283; the lines emerging from Silas’s groin were clearly obscene. The culprit was never discovered, although Webster immediately offered a reward of five hundred dollars to anyone who could name—and prove the guilt of—the man who did it. According to Webster, “250 copies left the office, I believe, before the mistake was discovered. Had the first edition been run off our loss would have been $25,000. Had the mistake not been discovered, Mr. Clemens’s credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” The printer, J. J. Little, was more succinct: “This cost me plenty.”

Because of the delay Webster missed the Christmas target date, and what is perhaps the greatest American novel was published first in England by Chatto & Windus on December 10, 1884. The first American edition appeared on February 18, 1885. (According to the title page of both the manuscript and Webster’s edition, the correct title is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . The word the was added by the publishers to the running heads and by Kemble in his illustrations. Sales were good. Webster’s figures show that he had 9,000 orders by September 2, 1884, and over 40,000 by April of 1885. He planned to print 50,000. On May 6 he noted, “I have already sold 51,000 of Huck.” A century later the Twain scholar Walter Blair estimates that, the world over, about twenty million copies have been sold, with sales still going strong.

 

Glad as he was about the book’s commercial success, Twain was disheartened by its reception. The Century Magazine , which had serialized three excerpts from the novel, ran a generally favorable review by Thomas Sergeant Perry, who spoke of Huck as the “immortal hero”—but the review did not appear until three months after the book’s publication. The newspapers were silent or, for the most part, negative: in Boston the book was attacked by both the Advertiser and the Transcript , the latter finding it “so flat, as well as coarse, that nobody wants to read it after a taste in the Century .” Robert Bridges gave it a sarcastic review in Life : “a … delicate piece of narration by Huck Finn, describing his venerable and dilapidated ‘pap’ as afflicted with delerium tremens … is especially suited to amuse children on long, rainy afternoons … ”